SYDNEY SMITH: A POUND OF MOTHERWIT
AND AN OUNCE OF CLERGY
Smith (1771- 1845) was an Anglican minister chiefly remembered,
not for his contributions to ecclesiastical management or theology,
much less orthodoxy, but for his humorous commentary on the folly
he saw around him. Many of his contemporaries thought him the greatest
satirist and all-around English wit since Swift. Lord Lansdowne
called him "an odd mixture of Punch and Cato." Smith is
perhaps most often quoted these days for his views on war and especially
from his letter to Lady Grey (of which more, soon enough). He was
an adherent of the Whig party and his ideas on war, peace, and other
questions flowed from his commitment to the classical liberal values
to be found, a good part of the time, in that party. Later in life,
Smith concluded that no political party was the faithful guardian
of the people's liberties.
his literary biographer, Hesketh Pearson1,
remarks, the main problem in reconstructing Smith's sayings (much
less his world outlook) is that he lacked a Boswell to follow him
around and write down his every word. His friends and acquaintances
were generally too overcome with laughter to reconstruct exactly
what he had said. We are thus left with Smith's published writings,
letters, and the testimony of those souls who could remember
what he said.
a time when ecclesiastical preferment depended on never offending
anyone important and not expressing views likely to be controversial,
Sydney Smith spoke his mind, delighting many and alarming others,
and thereby assured that he would never be a bishop in the Church
of England. As a result, he moved around from parish to parish,
with each church "living" a little better than the last,
and became, in the end, financially comfortable. (Having well-placed
friends among the Whigs did that much for him, at least.)
In 1802, Smith, Francis Jeffrey, and
Henry Brougham founded the Edinburgh Review as a vehicle
for reformist Whig ideas which we would call "liberal"
today, although the term was not then in use. This was a time of
political repression in Britain and the mildest call for change
brought forth accusations of Jacobinism and sedition. The wars with
revolutionary France had not run their course and many new restrictions
on speech, assembly, and other rights of Englishmen had come into
being during these wars (alongside some older ones).
review was serious business and Smith contributed to it for twenty-five
years. He had great fun tackling serious questions. Once, he seemed
to weigh carefully a proposed society for the suppression of vice,
and he concluded after a hilarious summary of various cruelties
favored by the gentry that it would better be called "a
Society for suppressing the vices of persons whose income does not
exceed L500 per annum." As for being fair to his fellow writers,
he quipped, "I never read a book before reviewing it; it prejudices
a man so."
believed in religious toleration, including Catholic emancipation.
This did not keep him from making fun of Methodists, Scottish Presbyterians,
and Dissenters, when he thought them wrong or amusing, which was
quite often. In the course of a discussion of Methodist missionary
work, he asked if it was actually wise to teach foreigners the gospel?
"If the Bible is universally diffused in Hindostan, what must
be the astonishment of the natives to find that we are forbidden
to rob, murder, and steal; we who, in fifty years, have extended
our empire from a few acres about Madras, over the whole peninsula,
and sixty millions of people, and exemplified in our public conduct
every crime of which human nature is capable."
would actually be better to tell those natives that Machiavelli
"is our prophet."
was a great critic of the cruel punishments still employed in England.
He was a vocal opponent of the Game Laws. He believed that English
policy itself was the chief cause of Irish alienation from English
rule. This made Ireland the permanent scene of danger of foreign
invasion, from which England, so far, had been providentially saved
by favorable winds. This made English policy in Ireland "anemocracy,"
or government by breezes.
PEACE, AND FOREIGN POLICY
Introducing a collection of his reviews,
Smith wrote that "There is more of misery inflicted upon mankind
by one year of war than by all the civil peculations and oppressions
of a century. Yet it is a state into which the mass of mankind rush
with the greatest avidity, hailing official murderers, in scarlet,
gold and cocks' feathers, as the greatest and most glorious of human
creatures. It is the business of every wise and good man to set
himself against this passion for military glory, which really seems
to be the most fruitful source of human misery."
one of his reviews Smith had what might be a premonition of several
contemporary American journals, when he wrote that: "We are
always glad to bring the scenery of war before the eyes of those
men who sit at home with full stomachs and safe bodies, and are
always ready with vote and clamour to drive their country into a
state of warfare with every nation of the world." In another,
he has some advice for the young American Republic: "We can
inform Jonathan what are the inevitable consequences of being too
fond of glory: TAXES upon every article which enters into the
mouth, or covers the back, or is placed under the foot taxes upon
every thing which it is pleasant to see, hear, feel, smell, or taste taxes upon warmth, light, and locomotion" and so on, until,
finally, the citizen's "virtues are handed down to posterity
on taxed marble; and he is then gathered to his fathers to be
taxed no more."
the apparent, if irrational, popularity of war, Smith thought it
"at all times a better speculation to make ploughshares into
swords than swords into ploughshares." He would not have thought
much of the current American fashion of armed intervention to spread
"democracy." Widespread agitation for intervention in
Spain in 1823 brought forth this response from him: "I would
rather the nascent liberties of Spain were extinguished than go
to war to defend them.... Why are the English to be the sole vindicators
of the human race?"
proposed intervention called forth his most famous utterance on
war his letter to Lady Grey: "For God's sake, do not
drag me into another war! I am worn down and worn out with crusading
and defending Europe and protecting mankind; I must think
a little of myself. I am sorry for the Spaniards I am sorry
for the Greeks I deplore the fate of the Jews; the people
of the Sandwich Islands are groaning under the most detestable tyranny;
Baghdad is oppressed I do not like the present state of the
Delta Tibet is not comfortable. Am I to fight for all these
people? Am I to be champion of the Decalogue and to be eternally
raising fleets and armies to make all men good and happy? We have
just done saving Europe, and I am afraid the consequence will be
that we shall cut each other's throats. No war, dear Lady Grey!
no eloquence; but apathy, selfishness, common sense, arithmetic!"
alert reader will have noticed that Baghdad is still "oppressed"
and that Tibet is still "not comfortable." And
there are still those who wish to raise fleets, armies, and air
forces "to make all men good and happy." We were offered
a mild form of that program in the early 1820s ourselves
saving Greece, saving our Latin American neighbors, etc.
and on our side of the water John Randolph of Roanoke made much
the same response as Sydney Smith did on his.
In a poorly received sermon on religious
tolerance, Sydney Smith said that "to do wrong, and gain nothing
by it, is surely to add folly to fault." This could easily
be the motto of recent US foreign policy of, say, the last hundred
years. Perhaps those words could be carved in stone over the entrance
of some public building in the World Capital, formerly Washington
City. Perhaps someone would read them. Meanwhile, I think it is
our duty to stir up as much "apathy, selfishness, common sense,
arithmetic" as possible.
See generally Hesketh Pearson, The
Smith of Smiths, being The Life, Wit and Humour of Sydney Smith
(London: Harper & Brothers, 1934).
R. Stromberg has been writing for libertarian publications since
1973, including The Individualist, Reason,
of Libertarian Studies, Libertarian Review, and the
and is completing a set of essays on America's wars. He is a part-time
lecturer in History at the college level. You can read his recent
Cold War," on the Ludwig
von Mises Institute Website. His column, "The Old Cause,"
appears each Tuesday on Antiwar.com.
contribution of $20 or more gets you a copy of Justin Raimondo's
Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against US Intervention in
the Balkans, a 60-page booklet packed with the kind of intellectual
ammunition you need to fight the lies being put out by this administration
and its allies in Congress. Send contributions to
520 S. Murphy Avenue, #202
Sunnyvale, CA 94086
Contribute Via our Secure Server
Credit Card Donation Form